‘Not Right Now’: Republicans and the Art of Not Talking About Trump

Haven’t seen it. Couldn’t tell you. Ask my office.

Congressional Republicans, well practiced by now in the craft of protecting an administration stalked by scandal, generally retreated to form on Tuesday when confronted with the extraordinary latest: an email last year, embraced by the president’s son, affirming the Russian government’s support for the Trump campaign and promising damaging information on his opponent.

The developments instantly roused a Capitol that can occasionally feel numb to Trump-size interruptions, jolting the overlapping investigations into ties between President Trump’s team and Russia and leaving Republican lawmakers to answer once more for the executive tumult that has shadowed the legislative year.

Even by the funhouse-mirror standards of Mr. Trump’s Washington, the stakes on Tuesday seemed to escalate in earnest, with some Democrats lurching more willingly toward words like “collusion” and even “treason.”

Yet the response from Republicans, at least initially, followed a familiar pattern: Approached for comment about Donald Trump Jr.’s email exchange and meeting, most senators declined to engage, expressed confusion about the questions or searched for plausible justifications for the conduct.

“Not right now,” Senator Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania said.

“Talk to others about politics,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, typically more willing than most Republicans to tweak the administration.

“He’s a very nice young man,” Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah said of the president’s son, insisting that he was simply “very dedicated to his father” and suggesting that the controversy “could be way overblown.”

The senator added that, in fact, it spoke well of the president that his children loved him so much even though “he divorced their mothers.”

Mr. Hatch was asked if he would have taken a meeting with someone who emailed promising Russian support and incriminating evidence during a campaign. He laughed.

“No,” he said.

Some of the most forceful Republican scolding came from a familiar duo: Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They are often the likeliest to criticize the president on matters of Russia, though they, too, have remained broadly supportive of his administration and its agenda.

“They’re problematic on its face,” Mr. Graham said of the email and the meeting. “If you’re ever approached about getting help from a foreign government, the answer is no.”

Mr. McCain, calling the Russia affair “a classic scandal” far from its end, returned to a favored foreboding prediction: “There will be more shoes that will drop.”

He was asked if he was confident that there was no collusion.

“I’m not confident of anything,” he said. “More shoes will drop.”

At the same time, some Democrats began pressing the case that months of Russia-tinged revelations had at last congealed into something unmistakable.

Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a member of the Intelligence Committee, argued that by Donald Trump Jr.’s own account of the meeting — or at least the latest one — “this was an attempt at collusion.”

Senator Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut said that for a long time, “we saw a lot of smoke but no fire.”

Now, he said, “you’re seeing fire.”

And on Tuesday morning, before the president’s son had released the email exchange in question, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia entertained the possibility of treason.

“Nothing is proven yet, but we’re now beyond obstruction of justice in terms of what’s being investigated,” Mr. Kaine told reporters. “This is moving into perjury, false statements and even potentially treason.”

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, dismissed any defense that Donald Trump Jr. was simply being politically naïve in taking the meeting. “Lying is not a rookie mistake,” Mr. Warner said, after noting the litany of Trump camp reversals from those who did not disclose or accurately recall meetings with Russians.

The more meaningful constituency, though, will be the Republicans whom Mr. Trump has relied on to pursue his legislative agenda.

All year, they have been confronted with this ritual: a disquieting report, a blizzard of questions, an awkward distancing that often neither condones the behavior nor condemns the administration that propagated it.

The same adjectives find their way into circulation: Troubling. Concerning. Problematic.

It is not yet clear if the fallout will be different this time among Mr. Trump’s supporters in Congress, who have retained a capacity for tunnel vision — speaking hopefully of health care and tax overhauls — once sufficient time has passed between Russia-flecked maelstroms. (In fact, several Republicans on Tuesday showed a particular eagerness to discuss the stalled effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, a topic that has at times inspired less loquaciousness in their ranks recently.)

Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, deflected questions on Tuesday about Donald Trump Jr., saying he did not want to draw conclusions during the investigation. Members of the Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee have said they want Mr. Trump to appear before lawmakers to discuss the meeting.

But at least some consternation appeared to be building for a handful of Trump loyalists. One of Mr. Trump’s earliest supporters, Representative Lee Zeldin of New York, registered his concerns on Twitter.

“I voted for @POTUS last Nov. & want him & USA to succeed,” he wrote, “but that meeting, given that email chain just released, is a big no-no.”

On Monday, Mr. Zeldin had said the meeting appeared to be a “big nothing burger.”

Other reliable Trump allies showed little sign of dissent. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas and one of the least talkative senators in the company of Capitol Hill reporters, was pressed repeatedly on the meeting and the email exchange.

“No comment,” he said on a loop, never breaking stride.

As Mr. Cotton — an Iraq war veteran with two Harvard degrees and manifest ambition — reached a Senate elevator, a Bloomberg reporter dangled some bait.

“You’re Tom Cotton!” he said, seeking comment once more. “Tom Cotton doesn’t take that meeting!”

Mr. Cotton smiled, slipping into a faint laugh.

The doors closed as another reporter offered a question just as likely to elicit a response: “Do you believe in aliens?”

By MATT FLEGENHEIMER and EMMARIE HUETTEMAN